Here’s what it takes to save coral reefs in Florida and beyond

Dec 19, 2019

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Technicolor-bright coral once blanketed the reefs of the Florida Keys, covering as much as 40 percent of the rock. Today, that percentage has dropped to a dismaying 2%, according to the latest estimates. Look at an underwater dive photo from 20 years ago and compare that to what you see when you swim or snorkel the reefs today. The difference is shocking.

But it’s not all bad news. This month, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced a dramatic 20-year plan to save the coral reefs of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

This isn’t a simple goal. Corals are dying faster every year from coral bleaching, due in large part to rising ocean temperatures caused by climate change. Then there’s ocean acidification, which happens when the sea absorbs too much carbon from burning fossil fuels. Pollution, over-fishing, the increasing strength of hurricanes and damage from ships are major threats as well. Coral reefs weakened by warming waters are susceptible to epidemics such as stony coral tissue loss disease, which was only discovered in 2014 and is spreading rapidly through Florida’s reefs.

The Keys are not, of course, the only place coral reefs have been decimated. Across the world, more than 50% of all coral reefs have died in the last 30 years, and of what remains, 90% are threatened with disappearance, according to Secore International, an organization dedicated to coral protection. Even among those still in existence, very few remain pristine and unaffected. And coral isn’t just pretty, it plays an essential role in the life of the reef itself. Without coral, the reef itself will degrade and vanish within years.

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has been one of the hardest hit. A recent study found that baby coral declined by 89% in just two years over 2016 and 2017 — damage so severe that scientists say it may never recover. In Hawaii, half the islands’ reefs suffered severe bleaching in 2014–2015 during a period of heatwaves. According to the Reef Resilience Network, almost 95% of Southeast Asia’s coral reefs are threatened.

But scientists and environmentalists aren’t going to let the coral die without a fight.

The Great Barrier Reef. (Photo courtesy Shutterstock.)
The Great Barrier Reef. (Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Hope for the future of coral reefs

One of the largest and most ambitious reef restoration projects ever proposed, Mission: Iconic Reefs, seeks to restore nearly 3 million square feet of the Florida Reef Tract — about the size of 52 football fields. Rather than trying to save existing coral, the project aims to re-grow and reintroduce coral species to the reefs in phases, starting with fast-growing elkhorn and staghorn coral and continuing with brain, pillar, star and other corals.

“NOAA is fundamentally changing its approach to coral reef restoration by proactively intervening to restore reef health and improve ecological function,” said Neil Jacobs, Ph.D., acting NOAA administrator, in announcing the project.

Along with propagating and replanting coral, the project will clear reefs of algae, remove invasive snails and other species, and reintroduce native sea urchins and crabs, which play an important role in keeping coral reefs healthy.

The Coral Restoration Foundation, which has already been working on “coral gardening” in Florida, is a key player in the project, along with Reef Renewal, the Nature Conservancy, the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation and other environmental groups. The goal: to return the reef to a coral cover of 25%, a level close to its original natural state, at which point the coral can be self-sustaining.

This isn’t the only sign of hope. Other large-scale reef restoration efforts are underway around the world, such as an innovative coral nursery being planted in a portion of the Great Barrier Reef. Smaller-scale efforts are proving successful, too: in Jamaica, more than a dozen local coral nurseries have sprung up to replant reefs, and after Hurricane Irma devastated Puerto Rico, divers worked to gather fragments of damaged coral and replant them with significant success.

How can you help?

It may feel like saving coral reefs is too big a problem for one person to solve but, in fact, there are many things you can do both during your travels and at home to help save coral.

When visiting a destination where you’ll be swimming in the ocean, be careful not to touch the coral with your hands or feet, because that can kill it. And when boating, drop anchor in sandy areas, not near reefs.

An even simpler task is to choose the right sunscreen — one that doesn’t contain oxybenzone and octinoxate, two chemicals linked to coral bleaching. Last year, Hawaii banned the sale of such sunscreens, and Hawaiian Airlines publicized the issue in a partnership with Raw Elements, offering its reef-safe eco formula to all passengers en route to the islands.

The Fairmont Orchid on the Big Island and Fairmont Kea Lani on Maui have actively supported the campaign by informing guests and providing reef-safe sunscreen in poolside dispensers.

While Hawaii’s law won’t go into effect until the start of 2021, you can start doing your part now by wearing only reef-safe sunscreen when swimming in the ocean. (Everywhere, not just Hawaii.) Planting trees is another way to help coral because they help remove carbon from the air and prevent erosion that silts up waterways. Visitors to Hawaii can plant their own native hardwoods such as koa and monarch milo through the Hawaiian Legacy Reforestation Initiative, supported in Oahu by the Four Seasons Ko ‘Olina, the Kahala Hotel and Alohilani Resort and on the Big Island of Hawaii by the Four Seasons Hualalai.

For travelers eager to experience the brilliant palette of a healthy coral reef, there are still many places to go. As explored in the Netflix documentary Chasing Coral and elsewhere, some of the world’s healthiest reefs can be found in Fiji, Belize, the Caribbean island of Bonaire, the Red Sea and parts of Indonesia. Big swaths of the Great Barrier Reef are still healthy, as is the Mesoamerican Reef off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

Then there’s French Polynesia, where a recent study by the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation and the University of Miami found some of the densest coral cover in the world. So snorkelers, divers and reef enthusiasts — make a list of coral reefs to see while they’re still with us, and do what you can to protect them. #goals

Featured image by Mark Conlin/VW PICS/UIG via Getty Images.

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